The Golden Age of Detective Fiction: A Christie and A Sayers Novel

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Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

Today begins the Golden Age of Detective Fiction Classics Circuit, and I have the honor of beginning the tour with reviews of two mystery novels. See the full schedule to see where the tour goes next.

It is rather ironic that I get to start off this great tour, because after reading my two novels, I’ve decided pretty strongly that I am not a great fan of the mystery novel. Although I enjoyed both of them, I found myself a bit bored, I’m sorry to say.

That said, both novels actually were rather excellent, just not my favorite genre. If you, like me, do not normally read mystery and would like to try one, either Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers would both be great books to start with, although for different reasons.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie is a novel that I read when I was younger (maybe age 13 or 14), and I’ve been looking forward to a reread.  It was a quick and easy read, and while it feels a little superficial, Hercule Poirot was just a great caricature of a detective. Overall, the murder mystery seemed almost pleasant to read. I never thought I’d put murder mystery and “pleasant” in the same sentences, but there you have it! The victim was not a very likeable person, and Mr. Poirot was such a calm detective solving the mystery that it was amusing to read.

It was not simply that Poirot was a caricature: every person in the novel met some stereotype. The two-page summary “cast of characters” in the beginning of the novel pretty much captures all we learn about most of the passengers on the train, which had been snowbound in the night at the time that a passenger was murdered. The mystery is not one that could be accurately predicted by the reader, I don’t think, simply because there is enough left unsaid that Poirot just happens to observe. (These “conveniences” of detection are one reason I do not normally read mystery; it bothers me that the solution always happens to be something a little bit out of the blue.) But despite the fact that Murder on the Orient Express lacks depth of characters and has a convenient plot, it does not need either of those aspects. It’s a clever and satisfying story.

Strong Poison was my first Dorothy Sayers novel, and since I’d read Christie’s novel first, I was surprised, by contrast, of the depth of characters, the emotional struggles of the characters, and the intrigue surrounding the mystery in this novel. There was also a subtle romance in it, and I liked that (since I’m a romantic).

Lord Peter Wimsey is a complicated man enjoying detection as a hobby. In the first scene, he is watching the end of the trial of Harriet Vane, a mystery writer who is on trial for murder of her former lover. He’s decided both that he loves her and that she is innocent, and thus begins his quest to prove her innocence by finding the true murder. I really liked Lord Peter, mostly because he had a deeper personality than I’d expect (at least, compared to the first mystery novel I’d read). He struggled to appear happy, and Sayers shared some of his complex thought processes. He wasn’t the “whimsical” character he at first appeared to be, and I liked the added dimension. It made the novel feel literary, rather than simply a plotted story. It was a long read (I admit I got bored in places) but with red herrings and realistic motives, it seemed satisfyingly complex.

I also found the beginning scene in the court room to be quite interesting, since Harriet’s character is sullied by the fact that she had been living with the deceased man. The judge discussed this at length, and it apparently influenced the court case, which really surprised me. I had to stop and check when it was written (1930), and it reminded me that life for a single woman has certainly changed a lot in the last 80 years!

In sum, then, Strong Poison was certainly more satisfying as a cohesive novel, full of more complex characters and realistic motives as compared to Murder on the Orient Express. Yet, Orient Express had a great story, and because it was so superficially written, it moved quickly I was actively engaged for the whole read. If you are looking for superficial by wonderfully crafted story, I’d suggest Murder on the Orient Express.  If you are looking for something a little more “literary” and deep in terms of writing, character, and plotting, maybe Strong Poison is for you.

I haven’t been converted to detective fiction, and I probably won’t read any more in the foreseeable future, but this was a nice change from my regular reading!

Are you a fan of mysteries? Why or why not?

Have you read Christie or Sayers? Which is your favorite novel by each author?

Reviewed on May 17, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

    • Chris, perfect way to put it! I certainly did enjoy it, but it’s like ice cream, I can’t eat it all day long….oh wait, maybe I could with the ice cream….

  • I’ve yet to read any Christie, but I have recently become a complete Sayers fangirl for many of the reasons you point you – especially the depth of the characterisation. My favourite of her novels so far is Gaudy Night, and you’re only one novel away from being able to read it! Come on, you know you want to – the mystery is only part of it; it’s most a look at academia in the early 20th century and the role of women in it. PLUS the character development and the romance are to die for. I’ll quit trying to tempt you and go away now 😛
    .-= Nymeth´s last post on blog ..Illyria by Elizabeth Hand =-.

    • Nymeth, 🙂 I really did enjoy the depth of characterization. But I think two mystery novels, even good ones, in one month, is more than enough for me, a non-mystery reader. I’ll give Sayers a try again some day, it was very satisfying, just a bit much to read two mysteries in one month!

  • I”m decidedly NOT a mystery fan either, but every once in awhile I like to read one to break out of my normal routine. And I do think some are better than others.

  • I read a lot of Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels as a teenager and like you I found that when the murder was solved there was always something that seemed to come out of nowhere that made everything make sense. On re-reading a couple of her books for my own circuit post, though, I was picking up things that I missed the first time around.
    The Dorothy Sayers novel sounds interesting I might have to check that out sometime…..
    .-= Suzanne´s last post on blog ..It’s Monday – What are you reading? =-.

  • I usually stay far away from mystery-mostly because some tend to lean on the scary side and I am a huge chicken. I don’t like that part of mystery.
    However, I have read some Christie novels in the past (back in high school), so I know that they are not nearly as bad.

    I have been working my way through all of the Holmes stories and novels and I am always impressed by Doyle’s creativity. I think it will be hard for me to find an author who can top the master and creator of the world’s most famous detective, you know?
    .-= Allie´s last post on blog ..25 Things About Me. =-.

    • Allie, neither of these are scary at all.

      I have read some of the Holmes stories but I was also rather bored by them. I don’t like the convenience of how the detective just happens to notice the smallest things and that’s the solution to the mystery. Holmes does that all the time, if I recall correctly!

  • I really like mystery, but I realized that I only like HISTORICAL mysteries. And I like series in which the detective grows as a character. Or that explore important themes and such.

    I am about halfway through my book for the Classics Circuit, and I am enjoying it so far. I think mysteries are good “rejuvenating” books for me. They’re usually quick and fairly light, easy to understand and enjoyable. So they get me ready and pumped for deeper reads!
    .-= Aarti´s last post on blog ..TSS: NYRB Classics! =-.

    • Aarti, I did find it a quick and enjoyable thing to read mysteries. Not sure I’ll be reading many more, but maybe I will see the end of the Harriet and Peter issue….There is definite growth happening there!

  • I’m not a mystery reader either. When I read mysteries there is a definite type I prefer more Sayers than Chrisite more novel with a mystery than a mystery forced into a novel. I liked the movie version of Murder on the Orient Express but I have not read the book. I’ll have to remember to try Sayers sometime.

    Thanks for starting off the tour!
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..More Thoughts on Reading in Small Pieces =-.

    • Stefanie, yeah, the Christie I read was more of a mystery forced into a novel. I’m not sure if all Christie is like that. But it was still fun, though. I’d highly recommend the Sayers!

  • I go through phase with mystery fiction – I enjoy the occasional Agatha Christie now and then (it’s good poolside reading), but my one dalliance with Sayers didn’t end all that well last year. I generally tend to prefer mystery fiction that also manages to create nuanced and balanced characters, but every now and then something purely plot-based can be fun.
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..What We Watched: April 28 – May 15 =-.

  • Yes, Murder on the Orient Express is a comfort read, and there’s a comfort film too, with Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman in the cast. It’s not one of Christie’s best–the plot is ingenious, but as you say, the whole thing feels superficial.
    Sayers–now you should stick with her! I agree with the earlier comment about Gaudy Night, and I also really like the last Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon. It’s as though Sayers finally decided to take Harriet and Wimsey seriously in these two novels, and the results are magnificent.
    .-= Niranjana ´s last post on blog ..Random Bookish Stuff =-.

    • Niranjana, aw, I’m starting to look forward to reading more Sayers now! (See, Nymeth, I can be convinced! I just needed enough similar comments!)

      I think Orient Express would make an excellent movie. I’ll have to find it!

  • You’ve summed up precisely why I tend to prefer Sayers over Christie. Her characters feel like people, not types. I can see why people like Christie; her plots are wickedly clever, but it’s Sayers every time for me.

    And the romance does get more prominent in the later Wimsey/Vane books to the point where Busman’s Honeymoon is referred to as “a love story with detective interruptions,” which is exactly what it sounds like you were hoping for.
    .-= Teresa´s last post on blog ..2017 =-.

    • Teresa, see my previous response to Niranjana….I think I may have to continue the Peter/Harriet novels….Love the sound of Busman’s Honeymoon. Do I have to read them in order?

      • I don’t think you *have* to read the Wimsey/Vane books in order. Sayers gives enough background for you to know what’s going on. However, seeing the relationship slowly develop ups the investment I feel in the characters. I’m not sure it’s possible to care as much about them without seeing the journey they go on.
        .-= Teresa´s last post on blog ..Like Hidden Fire =-.

  • I’m with you. I’m never into mystery novels. The last one I read was The Woman in White. Is that mystery novel? Loved that one though! I read Christie in high school so I have an idea of her books. Never read Sayers and sounds like someone I should look out for!

  • I’m just now starting to enjoy mysteries. It just hasn’t been a genre that I gravitated to before. I read Murder on the Orient Express for my post and I thought it was a fun, engaging read. Like you said though, there isn’t much depth.
    .-= Stephanie´s last post on blog ..The Sunday Salon =-.

  • I don’t read mysteries very broadly, but there are some mystery writers of whom I’m very fond. I like Agatha Christie because before reading her, the only mysteries I’d read were like Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Bobbsey Twins, where you could pretty much figure it out ahead of time. When I got to Agatha Christie, and all her red herrings and tight plots and surprising reveals, it felt like a revelation.

    Fun fact: Dorothy Sayers was in the exact same situation as Harriet Vane, of living with a guy who said he’d never want to marry, and then after she resigned herself to this and all, he told her actually, no, he was testing her devotion and wasn’t really against marriage after all. THEN SHE KILLED HIM IN FICTION. Oh I love her so.
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Review: The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy (NYRB Classics) =-.

    • Jenny, I don’t think I ever read Nancy Drew — I liked Encyclopedia Brown though when I was quite young. I loved how I could figure it out!

      I am not surprised to hear that Dorothy Sayers’s life was much as Harriet Vane. It seemed so autobiographical — and I say that not knowing a THING about Sayers.

  • I’m not a huge mystery reader, although I actually adore Agatha Christie. I agree with everything you said about her though, and she wouldn’t make my top authors list for those reasons, but I think she’s nice to curl up with on a lazy, rainy day, with a mug of cocoa near a window and a fireplace and a cat on my lap. Also, she’s one of the few writers my dad really likes, which is kind of funny to me, and it’s a nice connection we have. I’ll have to give Sayers a try. Like someone else mentioned, I think I prefer historical mysteries, and also mysteries that wouldn’t get shelved as mysteries at the local bookstore if you know what I mean. Like Matthew Pearl’s books, which are clearly mysteries, but are more literary and are not put in the mystery section.
    .-= Lindsey Sparks´s last post on blog ..NYC Reading =-.

  • Another justification for reading mysteries is touched upon but not elaborated in the above comments — humor. The “Dortmunder” novels of Donald E. Westlake are almost as humorous as some of Mark Twain.
    But beware some of Westlake’s other, hard-boiled, fiction. Gruesome!

    Also, of lesser interest to most, is the rhetoric of such writers as Westlake, and in this regard of Elmore et al. It is on the way to dissolution of grammar, in particular,of sentence structure, both more famously associated with the likes of such mainstream writers as Beckett.

    • David Russell, I found my two reads slightly humorous and definitely fun reads! I haven’t heard of the other mystery authors you mention. I love Mark Twain, though!

  • I’m a long time fan of traditional and classic mysteries, including the Golden Age. I do enjoy Christie and Sayers. I think Christie’s absolute best was “And Then There Were None,” which is a stand-alone story: ten people, isolated on a remote island, are being murdered, one by one. Who’s responsible? As for Sayers, I have several favorites, but I think “The Nine Tailors” is truly amazing. With Sayers, the “whodunit” part is usually not the strong point – it’s often “howdunit” and/or “whydunit,” and that’s true in “The Nine Tailors.”

    Other authors to be enjoyed from this general period would include John Dickson Carr, Elizabeth Daly, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin.
    .-= Les Blatt´s last post on blog ..The Classics Circuit visits the Golden Age of Detection =-.

    • Les Blatt, I may have to tray AND THEN THERE WERE NONE when I’m again in a mystery mood. And I loved in the Sayers how it was NOT a whodunit. As I said, I’m not a mystery person normally!

  • I love vintage mysteries but for me Sayers stands head and shoulders above Christie. My favourite Sayers is Gaudy Night. I enjoyed your reviews. Thanks.

  • This was a great lead-in post to the Golden Age of Detectives. I’m a huge Christie fan and the Orient Express is one of my favorites. I was pleasantly surprised when I read Sayers’ Gaudy Night. It was much more in-depth as you mentioned. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the blog posts on the tour.
    .-= Margot at Joyfully Retired´s last post on blog ..Wondrous Words #67 =-.

  • Agatha has popped up in a few places today making me feel very nostalgic for those teenage summers where I read through all her books. And then recently, Nymeth’s Dorothy Sayers mentions made me want to pick those up as well. This might be the Classics Circuit tour that most prompts me to read the books.

  • I am an avid mystery reader with a huge collection of books. I feel like I want to address so many of the comments here, especially the disparaging and dismissive ones. I will try to limit myself.

    “Orient Express” is a really fun book, but not a typical Christie in that the time frame is condensed into one day and there are so many characters. Poirot is a more complex character than this book would indicate, and is fun to follow through several books, if not the entire Poirot collection. Christie is the queen of mysteries because her books vary in their style but always deliver a good, fun read- and one which is the definition of the “cozy” style from the classic era, which means no hint of graphic or gory. “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “Witness for the Prosecution” are two particularly interesting Christies which do not utilize Poirot or Miss Marple and stand alone as outstanding Classic Era detective fiction.

    Sayers is a talented writer who chose mystery fiction as one of her genres. Her plots are complex, her characters have great depth, and reading the entire collection provides an insight into the English experience between the wars. Lord Peter can become known almost as a real person through the series- and a person whom one would delight to know. Her books tackle many issues of morality and ethics, and show us her own experiences as a woman ahead of her time in her education (one of the first women granted an Oxford degree) and lifestlye. Sayers chose to support herself with detective fiction in order to be able to indulge in her other, less financially rewarding, interests in theology and ancient languages among other things.

    Many mystery fans I know read the books not only for the fun of the stories, but the quality of the writing. Rex Stout produced almost 80 Nero Wolfe books and novellas, and they are among the best American writing produced in the 20th century.

    A relatively new series, the Maizie Dobbs books, by Jacqueline Winspear, also explore the British experience between the World Wars, with a heavy emphasis on character and psychology.

    Mystery is a genre too often written off cavalierly by those with little exposure to it, which offers as much literary experience to the reader as any other genre when the right books and authors are chosen.
    .-= LadyDoc´s last post on blog ..Memorial Day Weekend Blog Hop =-.

  • Classic mystery is great, but there are a lot of great new one out there too. I loved The Eighth Scroll , and even though I don’t usually like books with a theological element it is a great mystery and a great read.
    .-= Katie´s last post on blog ..The Odd Catch Up Day =-.

  • I adore Christie´s mysteries because they are so very cosy! It´s true I guess that characterization isn´t her strongest point but then I suspect she never intended it to be. I had never any trouble imagining the characters though.

    I´ve tried to read some Sayers but I think they might not have been her best (I´ve heard the ones with Harriet Vane are amazing). I very much enjoyed her writing style and characterization and if I had not expected a whodunnit and instead looked at it as a novel I would have liked it more.

    You really pointed out the strength of each writer! Sayers for writing and characterization and Christie of plot and mystery. A combination of tese two would be perfect 🙂

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